In the early 18th century, artisans bleached cloth with stale urine or spoiled milk and then left it out in the sunlight for extended amounts of time. It wasn't exactly the fastest or most efficient way to get the job done, but this process marked how chemistry was used to achieve desired product outcomes.
As the century progressed, industrialists incorporated sulfuric acid and then bleaching powder for textile dying applications. Today, manufacturers use a wide variety of chemistry to convert raw materials such as oil, natural gas, air, water, and metals into useable products.
The chemical industry operates in three different subsectors, including:
- Basic chemical refining, including refining petrochemicals (derived from oil), polymers (derived from petrochemicals), and basic inorganics
- Specialty chemical production, including those in in paints, dyes, and inks and those that help with crop protection
- Consumer chemical production, such as producing detergents and soaps used in commercial and domestic applications
The chemical industry relies on the hard work of chemists, chemical engineers, and refinery or chemical plant operators to run smoothly. This industry employs some of the highest paid and qualified professionals in the U.S.
Chemical manufacturing begins in industry and university research laboratories and then scales up from grams to tons as it finds success. Many regulations govern the industry because of the flammable or toxic nature of its products as well as the high temperatures and other dangerous conditions required to make them, resulting in safer products fit for public consumption.
How the Chemistry Contributes to Economic Growth
Successfully harnessing chemical production and use contributes greatly to a country’s wealth—as of 2011, the world chemical sales exceeded $3,500 billion. Corporations with large chemical manufacturing sectors post billions of dollars in annual sales and operate in many different countries.
Here are some other facts about the chemical industry and its importance to manufacturing as a whole:
- More than 80% of the chemical industry focuses on producing polymers and plastics, which form parts of products like wiring, clothing, PVC piping, and electronics.
- Pharmaceutical companies work with chemicals to manufacture drugs, vaccines, and medical supplies, providing jobs and boosting the economies of developing nations such as India.
- Fertilizers use chemicals to provide clean food, helping both the health and livelihood of agricultural workers across the world.
- A number of industrial processes rely on defoamers to mitigate foam buildup, increasing plant efficiency.
- Manufactured plastics and polymers form major parts of consumer items such as toiletries, mosquito repellent, and detergents or cleaning items.
- The United States has around 70 major chemical companies operating through more than 2,800 facilities both inside and outside of the U.S. The country’s annual chemical output is about $750 billion. In addition, U.S. chemical companies boast significant trade surpluses, employ more than a million people, and spend over $5 billion annually in pollution abatement.
- Europe's chemical sector accounts for around 12 percent of its manufacturing industry, making it one of the world’s largest exporters and importers. The European chemical industry employs more than 3 million people in over 60,000 companies.
Industries Helped by Chemistry
- Agriculture: A number of agricultural processes rely on chemicals. Chemical fertilizers boost the health of plants needing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, aiding with plant growth and increasing crop yields. Chemicals also are key ingredients in insecticides, which farmers spray on plants to kill pests without harming the plant itself, and herbicides, which keep weeds at bay.
- Biofuels: Biofuel manufacturers use plants, crops, and even municipal waste to create liquid or gaseous alternatives to fossil fuels. Organic chemists are currently working to develop biofuels with energy content comparable with conventional hydrocarbon fuels.
- Food processing: Chemicals make food last longer and prevent the growth of microorganisms that degrade food quality. Some food processing chemicals include nitrites and nitrates, which prevent botulism bacteria; suppressors for foam control and foam reduction during food production; sulfites and sulphur dioxide, which fight microbes; alginate and propylene glycol alginate, used to thicken foods; and aspartame, a sugar substitute.
- Oil and gas: The oil and gas industry relies on chemicals for emulsion breakers that treat oil fluids, tank bottoms, and disposal wells; antiscalants that control high-hardness, high-temperature, and high-total dissolved solids; and corrosion inhibitors for applications such as reinjection wells, refineries, and transportation lines to extend the working life of these assets.
Chemistry for Every Application
- Ammonia: Ammonia is one of the most commonly produced chemicals in the United States, and it is useful for a number of industries. About 80% of the ammonia produced in the U.S. appears in agriculture as a fertilizer. It also forms a part of household cleaners and microbial agents for the food industry.
- Styrene: Styrene provides a foundation for several polymer compounds including polystyrene, acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene, styrene-acrylonitrile, styrene-butadiene rubber and lattices, and unsaturated polyester resins. These compounds make products such as rubber, plastic, insulation, and fiberglass.
- Surfactants/polyols: Surfactants and polyols appear in detergents and remove dirt from skin, clothing, and household articles. They help with machine dishwashing powders and tablets, shampoos and shower gels, hair conditioners, and fabric softeners.
- Nitric acid: Nitric acid reacts with metal, oxides, and hydroxides as an oxidizing agent, and it also conducts electricity and helps with the preparation of fertilizers.
- Benzene: Found in crude oil, benzene forms a major part of gasoline. Other applications for it include making plastics, rubber lubricants, and dyes.
- Phosphates/phosphoric acid: Phosphorus is one of the most common elements on earth and is essential to all living things. Phosphorus compounds, known as phosphates, have a number of different applications, including as phosphoric acid, an acidifier food additive.
- Soda ash: Sodium carbonate, also known as soda ash, is used primarily as a water softener. It also helps with glass manufacturing and regulates acidity.
- Acrylic/methacrylic monomers: Acrylic and methacrylic monomers functionalize acrylic copolymers for a number of different applications, including paints and coatings, textile and paper finishes, and printing inks.
- Solvents: Solvents dissolve or dilute other materials and appear most frequently in industries such as engineering, plastics, or textiles.
- Sulfur/sulfuric acid: Manufacturers produce more sulfuric acid every year than any other chemical. It plays a part in nearly every manufactured good, but it’s especially well known as a component for fertilizers, chemical manufacturing, petroleum refining, and metal processing.
- Ethylene/propylene: Polymer production incorporates solvents such as diethylene glycol, which also acts as a humectant in printing ink and adhesives because of its hygroscopic properties.
- Ethyl acetate: Ethyl acetate is used as a solvent in industrial adhesives and coatings and as a cleaner in personal care products like nail polish remover.
- Acetone: Nail polish removers and paint thinners rely on acetone as a solvent. It also helps with laboratory cleaning solutions.
- Hydrogen peroxide: Hydrogen peroxide is a simple peroxide used in cleaning agents, pulp and paper bleaches, and wastewater treatment.
- Caustic soda lye: Caustic soda results from mixing sodium hydroxide with water. It helps with drinking water treatment and purification as well as beverage bottle cleaning and refining and purifying cooking oils and fats.
- Glycol ethers: Glycol ethers typically have higher boiling points and other favorable properties for use as solvents in paints and cleaners.
- Chlorine: A number of industries use chlorine to bleach products and reduce microorganism buildup, including textile production, pharmaceuticals, plastics, insecticides, and in water purification processes. It also forms parts of cleaning and degreasing solvents.
- Isopropyl alcohol: Isopropyl alcohol, or IPA, acts as a nontoxic alternative to other solvents, and it appears in cosmetic and personal care products such as hand sanitizers, disinfecting pads, pharmaceuticals, food and drink products, and inks.
- Bleach (sodium hypochlorite): This well-known cleaning agent often helps with commercial and household laundry sanitization and disinfects water and wastewater treatment plants.
- Propylene glycol: Propylene glycol forms a part of many plastics and polymers, and it also acts as a food additive as well as an additive to de-icing fluid.
- Urea: Readily produced from ammonia and carbon dioxide, urea is the most commonly used nitrogen fertilizer in the world. Urea also builds important resins used in the polymer industry.
- Hydrochloric acid (HCl or muriatic acid): HCl is an important ingredient in consumer goods such as batteries and photoflash bulbs. It also helps with steel processing along with gelatin and sugar processing.
- Sodium chlorite: Sodium chlorite is used in paper manufacturing and also appears in disinfectants, water treatment processes, and food sanitation.
- Peracetic acid (PAA): A weaker acid than acetic acid, peracetic acid prevents microorganism buildup in brewing applications.
- Potassium hydroxide (KOH): Also known as caustic potash, KOH appears in liquid fertilizers, food, soaps, and detergents, and it manufactures specialty glasses, such as those used in television tubes. It’s also used in vat dyeing and textile printing.
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